This month's issue of Cato Unbound has drawn an extraordinarily hostile response from a couple of mainstream online publications. Writing at Salon, Michael Lind inferred, mistakenly, that our interest in Seasteading and other radical libertarian projects was due to our disappointment that Republicans lost in the 2008 election. Because this issue was my idea, I feel I can speak effectively to the charge.
As I see things, it was basically impossible to cast either John McCain or Barack Obama as a libertarian. Neither of them shared the policy goals of the Cato Institute to any appreciable degree. Speaking as a private individual, I didn't vote for either of them, and I don't regret my choice. I found both Democrats and Republicans profoundly unappealing this election cycle.
This issue of Cato Unbound was motivated solely by my desire to see one particularly radical branch of libertarianism publicly confront its critics. I wanted to see how well it could hold up. Whether it stood or fell, the issue would have served its purpose. Electoral politics had nothing to do with it.
As our disclaimer makes clear, Cato Unbound doesn't necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cato Institute. No endorsement is implied. Instead, we strive to present ideas and arguments that will be interesting to libertarians and also, if possible, to the general public.
Sometimes this means soliciting opinions that are very, very far from the American mainstream, and also far from our own views. It was a proud day for me when a prominent climate change blog suggested that Hell had frozen over -- because the Cato Institute had published a piece by Joseph Romm. But that's just the kind of place that Cato Unbound has always tried to be. We court controversy.
Some of Lind's harshest barbs were reserved for contributor Peter Thiel, and for his suggestion that, demographically speaking, women have tended to oppose libertarian policies:
According to Thiel, one problem with democracy is that women have the right to vote:
Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women -- two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians -- have rendered the notion of 'capitalist democracy' into an oxymoron.
What could more beautifully illustrate the pubescent male nerd mentality of the libertarian than Thiel's combination of misogyny with the denial of aging and death? We had a nice John Galt libertarian paradise in this country, until girls came along and messed it up!
In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms -- from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called 'social democracy.'
After considering the possible mass migration (if that is not a contradiction in terms) of libertarians to cyberspace and outer space, he opts for Fantasy Island:
The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism. For this reason, all of us must wish Patri Friedman the very best in his extraordinary experiment.
Here's an idea. Thiel could use his leverage as a donor to combine the Seasteading Institute with the Methuselah Foundation and create a make-believe island where girls aren't allowed to vote and where nobody ever has to grow up. Call it Neverland. It would be easy for libertarian refugees from the United States and the occasional neo-Confederate to find it. Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.
Emphasis added. Owen Thomas at Gawker jumped to about the same conclusion, but with even more ad hominem.
Yet Thiel's claim is not that women should be denied the vote. He writes only that women have tended to favor policies and candidates he opposes, and which he thinks are bad for the country. This seems -- to my mind at least -- regrettable, but also generally true. Thiel might have chosen his words more carefully, but it's still quite a logical leap from what he actually wrote to demanding the end of women's suffrage. Of course women should be able to vote. It's ridiculous to suggest otherwise. We libertarians just need to do a better job of convincing them that voting in favor of individual liberty and free markets are the best choices they can make.
Consider that a Democrat might complain that white evangelical Christians don't support enough Democrats, and that this works out badly for the country. No one would ever conclude that Democrats want to take away the votes of white evangelical Christians. We would all figure that they are just confronting a failure of practical politics, and perhaps trying to do better at realizing their particular vision of the world. That's what Thiel was doing too, albeit not via electoral politics. Something about libertarians, however, seems to demand that some people read us as uncharitably as possible.
Seasteading proposes to create a demonstration of how a libertarian society might work. Its proponents believe that if it works, everyone will be drawn to it, including women. Will they succeed? I have some serious doubts, to be honest.
That's why I set up this issue of Cato Unbound, and why I think the discussion has been valuable.
I've been following Patri Friedman's work on seasteading for a number of years, so I was excited to see him contribute the lead essay in this month's Cato Unbound. I think he makes some good points about the difficulty of achieving a free society through ordinary electoral politics. As he points out, libertarians are a minority of the electorate and the political game is stacked against politicians who aren't willing to use their power to reward special interests. So smart libertarians should be looking at options outside of campaigns and elections to make the world a freer place.
But I think it's a huge and unwarranted leap to go from this observation about the limits of electoral politics to claim that "the advocacy approach which many libertarian individuals, groups, and think tanks follow (including me sometimes, sadly) is an utter waste of time" and that "academic research has enlarged our understanding but they have gotten us no closer to an actual libertarian state." It's not difficult to find examples of academic research that changed the world. One of the most important trends toward liberty in the United States during the last century, the deregulation of transportation and communication markets in the 1970s, came about because a small group of academics persuaded Washington policymakers that deregulation would benefit consumers (and, in the process, their own political prospects). It surely mattered that Margaret Thatcher was a devotee of Friedrich Hayek. And if Friedman will forgive me for personalizing the debate a little bit, he must be familiar with the role his own grandfather had in ending the draft, achieving (relatively) stable money, and inspiring the modern school choice movement.
Now, Friedman says he's interested in living in an "actual free society." He probably regards the above examples as merely "small incremental gains in freedom." But if that's his critique, he bears the burden of showing that his preferred approach, seasteading, will itself achieve an "actual free society" rather then mere "incremental gains." I'm not so sure.
Friedman makes much of the distinction between "technology" on the one hand and "advocacy" on the other. He thinks technological approaches are better because they provide superior leverage: a group as small as a few hundred people may be able to permanently lower the barrier to entry to statehood and fundamentally transform the nation-state game.
It's an appealing vision, but I don't think the distinction between technology and advocacy is so stark. As my colleague Will Wilkinson has pointed out, ideology is a kind of infrastructure. The tools of persuasion — magazine columns and television specials, for example — are means of improving this infrastructure by spreading new and better ideas. Modern communications technologies offer a kind of leverage not so dissimilar to the leverage Friedman hopes to achieve through seasteading. A small group of talented people can permanently change public attitudes, thereby shifting the Overton Window and changing the constraints politicians face.
Indeed, it's obvious that Friedman himself understands this on some level. You'll notice that right now, he's not spending his time at a dry dock constructing an actual seastead. Instead, he's using the same technologies he derides in other contexts — giving talks, writing essays, giving media interviews — to spread a set of ideas that he thinks will change the world. Getting seasteading to actually happen is a collective action problem. The tools he needs to overcome that collective action problem are precisely the "folk activism" tactics that he derides in other contexts. I think he's largely right that national elections are not an arena in which "folk activism" has much impact, but there are clearly circumstances in which those tactics do work, and blanket dismissal of those tactics is therefore misguided.
I think Friedman overestimates the extent to which successful seasteads would achieve revolutionary, rather than merely incremental, changes in the amount of freedom in the world. Friedman's vision for the future is a floating Hong Kong surrounded by a billion-dollar breakwater. He's not going to be satisfied with a bunch of glorified houseboats. So the society he hopes to build would be a complex system with many of the anti-libertarian tendencies that afflict today's cities. He's right, of course, that the power of that city's leaders will be limited by the greater ease of exit. But a large fraction of the inhabitants of a floating Hong Kong would still be tied down by professional, family, and social ties. And as a consequence, the political leaders of such a society would still have considerable political power.
Therefore, large, permanent floating cities will only remain free if they're built with good ideological infrastructure: with institutions and public attitudes conducive to liberty. That means that the efforts of libertarian public policy scholars is complementary to Friedman's own organizational and engineering efforts. Their efforts can help in two ways. First, they can help to guide the founders of new seastead cities in making institutional design decisions that will maximize the likelihood that the society will remain free over the long run. Second and more importantly, the continued growth of the libertarian movement provides the seasteading movement with its most important input: "customers" who will instinctively understand the appeal of the seasteading project. Self-identified libertarians are likely to not only be the first people willing to join seasteads, but also the strongest advocates of preserving liberty within floating cities once they become firmly established.
It seems counterproductive for Friedman to spend his intellectual energies denigrating the efforts of those of us who have chosen to use communications technologies, rather than maritime technologies, to advance liberty. I predict that the technologies of persuasion we use at the Cato Institute will prove to be more important for the long-run success of liberty than the maritime technologies Friedman hopes to develop. But I'm glad that Friedman is experimenting with a different approach, and I would be thrilled to be proven wrong. If the seasteading movement does prove successful, I think it's success will have been greatly accelerated by the existence of a large and enthusiastic audience that has been created and nurtured by the "folk activism" of the broader libertarian movement.
Last week, a U.S. Department of Education study revealed that students participating in a Washington D.C. voucher pilot program outperformed peers attending public schools.
According to The Washington Post, the study found that "students who used the vouchers received reading scores that placed them nearly four months ahead of peers who remained in public school." In a statement, education secretary Arne Duncan said that the Obama administration "does not want to pull participating students out of the program but does not support its continuation."
Why then did the Obama administration "let Congress slash the jugular of DC's school voucher program despite almost certainly having an evaluation in hand showing that students in the program did better than those who tried to get vouchers and failed?"
The answer, says Cato scholar Neal McCluskey, lies in special interests and an unwillingness to embrace change after decades of maintaining the status quo:
It is not just the awesome political power of special interests, however, that keeps the monopoly in place. As Terry Moe has found, many Americans have a deep, emotional attachment to public schooling, one likely rooted in a conviction that public schooling is essential to American unity and success. It is an inaccurate conviction — public schooling is all-too-often divisive where homogeneity does not already exist, and Americans successfully educated themselves long before "public schooling" became widespread or mandatory — but the conviction nonetheless is there. Indeed, most people acknowledge that public schooling is broken, but feel they still must love it.
Susan L. Aud and Leon Michos found the program saved the city nearly $8 million in education costs in a 2006 Cato study that examined the fiscal impact of the voucher program.
To learn more about the positive effect of school choice on poor communities around the world, join the Cato Institute on April 15 to discuss James Tooley's new book, The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.
Obama Announces New Direction on Immigration
The New York Times reports, "President Obama plans to begin addressing the country's immigration system this year, including looking for a path for illegal immigrants to become legal, a senior administration official said on Wednesday."
In the immigration chapter of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers, Cato trade analyst Daniel T. Griswold offered suggestions on immigration policy, which include:
- Expanding current legal immigration quotas, especially for employment-based visas.
- Creating a temporary worker program for lower-skilled workers to meet long-term labor demand and reduce incentives for illegal immigration.
- Refocusing border-control resources to keep criminals and terrorists out of the country.
In a 2002 Cato Policy Analysis, Griswold made the case for allowing Mexican laborers into the United States to work.
For more on the argument for open borders, watch Jason L. Riley of The Wall Street Journal editorial board speak about his book, Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders.
In Case You Couldn't Join Us
Cato hosted a number of fascinating guests recently to speak about new books, reports and projects.
- Salon writer Glenn Greenwald discussed a new Cato study that exa
mines the successful drug decriminalization program in Portugal.
- Patri Friedman of the Seasteading Institute explained his project to build self-sufficient deep-sea platforms that would empower individuals to break free of national governments and start their own societies on the ocean.
- Dambisa Moyo, author of the book Dead Aid, spoke about her research that shows how government-to-government aid fails. She proposed an "aid-free solution" to development, based on the experience of successful African countries.
Find full-length videos to all Cato events on Cato's events archive page.
Also, don't miss Friday's Cato Daily Podcast with legal policy analyst David Rittgers on Obama's surge strategy in Afghanistan.
In today's installment of Cato Unbound, Reason senior editor Brian Doherty defends "folk activism" (that's what we do here at Cato, in case you're wondering) against Patri Friedman's complaints of ineffectiveness.
Doherty argues, in effect, that Friedman's effort to simply go out and float a boat upon which one can do whatever floats one's boat is parasitic on earlier "folk activism" aimed at persuasion. It is hard to find 20,000 people who will commit to moving to New Hampshire for the cause of liberty and, as Brian points out, it's even harder to find people who will now commit to moving to a man-made island. The viability of projects like Seasteading seems to depend on the success of prior evangelism.
That said, one of the merits of Friedman's "dynamic geography" is that it is not really a "libertarian" project at all. As he writes in his Unbound lead essay:
Because we have no a priori knowledge of the best form of government, the search for good societies requires experimentation as well as theory — trying many new institutions to see how they work in practice.
I think there's good reason to expect competing sea-top jurisdictions to settle on a scheme of governance more libertarian than what the world's current nation states have to offer. But I also think there's little reason to expect a seastead to embody the system of most libertarians' dreams unless a lot of libertarians coordinate and settle there. In that case, it's really clear that creating a libertarian society from whole cloth depends on the prior existence of libertarians, which depends on the success of the folk activism that produces them.
For more on seasteading, check out yesterday's Cato Policy forum with Patri Friedman and today's podcast interview.